Disorganized Democracy in Thailand

By Francis Northwood (PO ’21)

Thailand will be holding its first elections in four years on February 25th. Since Thailand’s last election, a military Junta led by Prayut Chan-o-cha has controlled the country. The military junta only recently lifted the ban on political activity it had set in 2014. In the years since the Absolute Monarchy was abolished in 1932, there have been 25 general elections, 19 coups d’état, and 12 successful coups d’état. For a country rife with recent undemocratic turmoil, elections are massive news. Despite the hope that elections possess, the political nature of the country prevents the elections from being carried out legitimately. In spite of this, Thailand is seeing change, with younger liberal Thais growing tired of the incessant undemocratic practices of their leaders.

In 2014, the Thai military, a junta, overthrew the government in a coup d’état. This occurred six months after the Thai Constitutional Court (the equivalent to the U.S’s Supreme Court) removed the Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra.

Thailand is officially a unitary parliamentary constitutional monarchy. Which in practical terms means an effectively powerful parliament with a monarchical check on it. Monarchical Rule has long been the stabilizer in Thai politics, as the late King Bhumibol’s approval was enough to grant any government in Thailand legitimacy. But with his passing in 2016, Thailand was faced with an unpopular new figure: the new monarch, King Maha Vajiralongkorn. The new king is not well-liked. King Vajiralongkorn can be best characterized by his extravagant debt, numerous tattoos, debaucherous parties, and his reputation as a rowdy, immature heir, despite being 66 years old. So much so, in fact, that his younger sister, Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn, was the more popular candidate for becoming monarch of Thailand. The passing of the popular King Bhumibol represents a destabilization in an already tumultuous Thai political system.   

As controversial as the delays have been, the proposed election date is still shrouded in corruption. For instance, prior to the election, the junta-backed Election Commission had been tasked with redrawing Thai districts’ boundary. However, the junta-backed Prime Minister ordered the Commission to delay the border-drawing, arguing they were redrawing the boundaries without adhering to the existing Thai redistricting laws. The commission drew criticism from pro-democracy watchdog organizations like the Open Forum for Democracy Foundation. The Open Forum for Democracy Foundation even referenced American gerrymandering in their criticism of the undemocratic nature of the runup to the election. The Election Commission responded to accusations of corruption with the dubious claim that the delay was necessary as the chair of the Election Commission, Ittiporn Boonpracong, needed eye surgery. Many already think that the junta has already won the election.

Prayut Chan-o-cha, the current junta-backed Prime Minister, is by far the front-runner for the coming election. Rangsit University released their polling data this past November, which gave Prayut a nine-point lead on his closest opponent, Sudarat Keyuraphan. Sudarat Keyuraphan currently heads the Pheu Thai Party, which was formerly led by the two former Prime Ministers, Yingluck Shinawatra and Thaksin Shinawatra. The Pheu Thai Party originated in the Isaan province of Eastern Thailand and cite workers’ rights and the wellbeing of the Thai agricultural sector as their most important campaign issues. They are often associated with the Red-Shirts, notorious anti-royalists who led a series of protests which turned violent in 2012. The Pheu Thai Party and the Royalists faced an unusual crisis in early February, when Princess Ubolratana Rajakanya become the first member of the Thai royal family to ever run for political office. Her popular bid for Prime Minister, enabled by her reviving of the formerly dissolved Thai Nation Party, was effectively eliminated through a royal condemnation by her brother, the king.

Thailand’s democratic future seems dire with the two frontrunners being members of the old guard; however, a new party recently appeared on the horizon. The Vice-President of Thai Summit Group, Thailand’s largest auto-parts manufacturing group, is an eccentric billionaire named Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit. He entered the political sphere this year, co-founding the Future Forward Party. The party is unusually liberal for the country and caters to a far more progressive and younger voter base. Its founding members include activists specializing in disability rights, LGBTQ rights, sexual assault advocacy, and women’s rights. While this sort of politics may sound unreasonable for a country coming out of a junta, Future Forward’s leadership—especially Thanathorn—are remarkably wealthy and already powerful, granting them unusual political freedom.

The Future Forward Party may have just jumped onto the scene, but its popular appeal and pragmatic leadership offers hope to a country lost in political disarray. For the coming election, it seems set in stone that not much will alter, but what lies ahead looks to be laden with dramatic change.

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